Special needs

8 ways to help a child with autism manage their weight

Meds, picky eating and fewer opportunities to join in organized sports can lead to weight issues for kids with autism. Here’s how to help a child on the spectrum maintain a healthy body—and a healthy body image.

8 ways to help a child with autism manage their weight

Photo: iStock Photo

When your child has a developmental disability like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one of the more sensitive issues they can face is weight gain. They may have atypical eating patterns and be less physically activity than neurotypical peers.  Some of the medications prescribed to manage ASD symptoms may also cause them to put on extra pounds. And it’s not as easy as telling them they need to lose weight. Like any child or youth, when kids on the spectrum feel blamed or shamed about their weight, their self-esteem takes a hit. Amy McPherson, a senior scientist at Bloorview Research Institute, shares her tips for helping kids with ASD to manage their weight, with a body-positive attitude.

1. Get active in the day to day

Don’t just think of physical activity as something you need to do in organized sports and classes: “It could be dancing to music and doing fun things at home,” says McPherson. From helping bring grocery bags upstairs to raking leaves or shovelling snow in the garden, there are lots of activities that can get your kid moving more. You could even get in the habit of tossing a ball back and forth in the living room during television commercials.

2. Make a team effort

Kids watch and learn from their parents, so it’s important to be a good role model. “If you do active things together as a family there’s also that incentive of spending more fun time together,” says McPherson. Aim for weekly bike rides or swims—many pools have special quiet hours for children with sensory sensitivities and their siblings and caregivers. Or go to a securely fenced-in inclusive playground—the best option for kids on the spectrum, who may have a tendency to run off.

3. Take your cues from your kid

“Kids will always do something they enjoy more willingly than something Mom wants them to do,” McPherson says. “You can find out what your child responds to, by watching them at play: Are they good at a particular way of moving their body?” Once you’ve figured out if your kid is more of a ball-throwing, swimming or running type, you can check out adapted or integrated programs that harness their natural strengths. Programs like Special Olympics can expose them to different types of activities, from basketball to skating to bowling, and have the added bonus of helping kids with autism to develop their social skills.

4. Take baby steps introducing healthy new foods

Kids with autism can be wary of foods they’ve never tried before and sensitive to certain textures or temperatures, so go slow, if you feel they need to eat more greens. “Maybe have them choose one fruit or one vegetable, each week, that they’ve never tried before,” suggests McPherson. You can also have them help prepare the meal, doing tasks such as shelling peas, peeling potatoes or picking fresh herbs. “That kind of extra engagement can be motivating,” says McPherson.

5. Get creative with rewards

Often parents of kids on the spectrum are advised to offer things like goldfish crackers or candies to reinforce desired behaviours. McPherson cautions against using food as a reward. “Use stickers, or a star chart, or points that can be exchanged for a little treat, like a toy or a book, once the child has earned enough.” Find yourself empty-handed? Try praise or a hug!

6. Try tech


Tracking steps can be motivating, and you can take the vegging factor out of screen time, with active games on X-Box Kinect, WiiFit Plus or the Just Dance series. “There’s no strong evidence to show these videogames affect weight, but more holistically, our definition of physical activity is doing something that gets you hot and sweaty and makes your heart beat faster,” says McPherson.

7. Watch your words

There are many ways to talk about body goals, without zoning in on excess pounds. “I encourage parents to use phrases like ‘healthy growth,’ ‘eating well to feel more energetic,’ and ‘letting your height catch up with your weight,’” says McPherson.

8. Don’t focus on the scale

“A lot of parents feel incredibly guilty, if they've agreed for their children to go on medicine, and it has had a positive impact on ASD-related symptoms but made a child’s weight goes up,” says McPherson. Instead of paying close attention to the numbers on the scale, she advises noticing and praising healthy behaviours that will ultimately support weight management.

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